What I’m about to say will at first, I think, sound negative, but give me a moment to explain: I haven’t enjoyed Jean Echenoz’s most recent books until I’ve finished it. Then they start to work their magic. He’s a master of skirting issues, of understating a significant moment while overstating some seemingly superfluous detail. When I reviewed his 2012 novel 1914 last year (see here), I said “Echenoz has the ability to ‘play’ with serious subjects, somehow making them even more grave.” I came to admire 1914 quite a bit after first being underwhelmed. Recently, The New Press released a collection of Echenoz short stories called The Queen’s Caprice (Caprice de la reine, 2014; tr. from the French by Linda Coverdale, 2015), and, let me tell you, I struggled with these too, and I now find them quite magical.
The Queen’s Caprice contains seven “little literary objects.” Out the gate, we’re already on playful ground. Though short, though somewhat like stories, these are not really short stories. Originally written and published in various places between 2002 and 2014, these are “objects” that I’d also classify as “occasions” since Echenoz often wrote them to commemorate some event or place. When I first found that out, I was even more wary. Do I really want to read something Echenoz wrote to publicize some cultural event, like a recording of Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar? Well, yes, now I do. These events, Linda Coverdale says in her “Translator’s Note,” “inspired the author to observe, improvise, invent.”
Echenoz, it’s become clear to me, focuses more than most authors on a central question: what details do I present? If I’m going to write a six-page treatment on Lord Nelson — one that will suggest a passage of time, one that will suggest how that passage of time will kill but also one that will suggest the richness of the life being lived — what do I present? Why not invoke a seemingly simple dinner scene? The result is a story with details that show an interior life being lived (Nelson twists a newspaper sideways in order to read it) within a tumultuous exterior world (Nelson twists the paper because he was blinded in a battle in Corsica. As I mentioned above, this doesn’t necessarily affect me until I’ve finished reading it and the images shift around in my mind, coalescing around an astonishingly rich impression of a life.
But Echenoz doesn’t stop chasing this question there but tests his abilities to evoke through disparate detail in increasingly unconventional pieces. In the aptly titled “Twenty Women in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Clockwise” Echenoz takes us on a 360 degree scan of the Jardin du Luxembourg, describing the twenty statues of women he sees there. That’s right: in creating a statue, a sculptor is analyzing details to figure out what accoutrements might best invoke the subject; Echenoz takes this a step further in analyzing what details he’ll focus on to invoke a life portrayed by a statue:
Berthe or Bertrade, queen of France, holds a scepter in her right hand and a damaged statuette of a seated man in the palm of her left hand. Coiffure: two very long double braids. Jewelry: nothing to report. Expression: resolute.
This remarkable exploration in brief detail continues in “Three Sandwiches at Le Bourget,” a charming passage through a declining town.
Not all of the stories in here are quite as unconventional. The longest is “Civil Engineering,” a piece about the widowed Gluck who is working on a history of bridges. Still, the pleasures to be had here are in the details — not necessarily in the details themselves but in Echenoz’s playful way of using them to, strangely, show the expanse of time and place.
The collection is magical and, if not filled with masterpieces, definitely worth picking up to see a master playing with his tools.